Some economists have long argued that to really save the planet – and ourselves – from the climate crisis, we need a fundamental overhaul of the way our economies work. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we explore the ideas of the degrowth movement and their calls for a contraction in the world’s consumption of energy and resources. We also compare degrowth to other post-growth proposals for governments to reduce their fixation with economic growth.
As world leaders and their negotiators prepare to meet in Glasgow for the COP26 UN climate summit, the focus is on emissions targets, net zero pledges and about money to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Many of the proposed solutions to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels centre around technology and renewables. In many countries, the focus is on green growth – continuing to grow the economy by using renewables instead of fossil fuels and introducing more efficient and sustainable ways to produce goods.
But some economists believe it’s impossible to decouple economic growth from its negative impact on the environment. Prominent among them are those in the degrowth movement.
The term degrowth was first coined in the 1970s by a group of thinkers in France who believed the world needed to move away from a preoccupation with economic growth. Since then, these ideas have continued to gain traction, as have other post-growth ideas focused on shifting away from the use of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic progress.
In January, the European Environment Agency questioned whether full decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures was possible. It said “societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress” and that post-growth and degrowth alternatives offered “valuable insights”. A few months earlier, Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland, had argued that failure to secure sufficient decoupling “implies that degrowth remains the only sustainable strategy for planetary survival”.
In this episode, Sam Alexander, a degrowth advocate and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia, explains that degrowth means: “A new societal or economic model based on planned contraction of the energy and resource demands of our economies, in a way that enhances ecological conditions and ensures that everyone has enough to live well.”
But Alexander says this “doesn’t mean we are going to be living in caves with candles”. Rather, for people in the world’s richest countries, it might involve driving less, rethinking diets, travelling less and living in smaller houses. “We can live well on less, but it does require a rethinking of high impact cultures of consumption.”
Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria and also a serving independent MP in Italy, is a prominent critique of governments’ obsession with economic growth and GDP. While sympathetic to the degrowth argument, Fiormanti says the word degrowth doesn’t travel well in politics. “Those countries that have never seen growth, will never embrace degrowth”, Fioramonti says. “I take you to Malawi and they’re going to tell you, ‘Oh, we’ve had degrowth for the past 50 years and we don’t live well, you know?’” Instead, he argues for the focus to shift on wellbeing and measures that try to capture progress towards it.
For Beth Sratford, PhD candidate at the School of Environment at the University of Leeds in England, the debates between the green growth and degrowth camp “is in danger of becoming an own goal”. Stratford, who calls herself a post-growth economist, says the debate can sometimes get bogged down in technical concepts that can be alienating for some people. She says it might better to focus on “arguments that are easier to win”, for example, constraints on resource use, protecting habitats or regulating supply chains to make sure they aren’t exploitative or causing harmful ecological consequences.
To end the episode, Veronika Meduna, science, health and environment editor at The Conversation in Wellington, gives us some recommended reading about the coronavirus situation in New Zealand.
This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.
Newsclips in this episode from The Independent.